Tuesday, September 20, 2011

John A.: Birth of a Country

Last night, the CBC aired John A.: The Birth of a Country, a dramatization of the eight years of Canadian political history leading up to the formation of the Great Coalition government of 1864 - the government which ultimately drove the Confederation process. Based on Richard Gwyn's recent biography of Sir John A. Macdonald (and with historical insights provided by my friend, historian Andrew Smith), the film is clearly an effort to reinvigorate the interest that Canadians have for their past. Twitter today has been filled with glowing reviews from the Historica-Dominion institute and Canada's History magazine.

Would that I could share this enthusiasm. I'll admit that even though I love and teach Canadian political history, I've never been a huge fan of historical films, and I don't read nearly as many biographies as perhaps I should. But I'm always on the lookout for a new film to show in the Practicing Historian course that I teach to my second year students (much as The Valour and the Horror illustrates a lot of very useful points about film and public history, I don't particularly enjoy watching it year after year), and so I decided to settle in and watch John A. last night. Having done so, I don't understand the accolades being heaped on it by people such as Andrew Coyne and Peter Mansbridge.

The acting by the two leads, Shawn Doyle and Peter Outerbridge, as John A. Macdonald and George Brown, was solid, given the script and the material that they had to work with. Brown, in particular, came across as a complex character who had strong ideas about democracy and the failures of the United Province. Macdonald, on the other hand, was largely depicted as a charismatic showman and a crafty political operator. Having watched the film, though, I got the sense that the filmmakers got to a certain point and decided that they really wanted to make this a film about George Brown. This doesn't surprise me, as most of the accounts that I've read of Confederation give Brown most of the credit for compromising and coming up with the idea for a constitutional committee and the Great Coalition. Of the three major leaders (along with George-Etienne Cartier, who only plays a bit part in the film), Conservative leader Macdonald controlled the smallest number of followers in the legislative assembly. Nevertheless, the result is that "John A." felt like a misnomer of a film that could just as easily have been called "George". Had the film continued into the Confederation negotiations of 1864-67, Macdonald's central place in the narrative might have seemed more justified.

I'm not a historian of 19th century Canada. My own research interests lie in more recent decades, so I'm not particularly well placed to pick apart where the filmmakers might have taken some liberties with the historical past. My bigger concern is with the film itself as a piece of entertainment. It is primarily on this score that I found it to be a failure. I was not gripped by the drama, nor drawn in by the characterizations of these politicians. Quite the contrary. I found the script to be leaden in its earnest desire to educate its audience. In an effort to communicate historical facts, the characters frequently engaged in dialogue that sounded like they were reading aloud from historical monographs. It reminded me of a great scene from "The Great Muppet Caper", where Lady Holiday (played by Diana Rigg) delivers a long monologue explaining all about her relationship with her brother, the family business, etc, and then Miss Piggy turns to her and asks "Why are you telling me all of this?" Holiday airily replies, "It's plot exposition, it has to go somewhere. Anyways..." Almost all of the dialogue of John A. felt like this to me. The characters kept telling each other things in a completely artificial way, providing historical exposition for the audience, but snapping the viewer out of the moment, and making him/her very much aware that they were being educated about Canada's history.

Overall, the film felt like a two hour version of on of Historica's Canadian History minutes. And while that method of communicating tidbits of Canadian history can work in a one-minute commercial, it becomes tiresome in the format of a feature-length film. Caught between a desire to educate Canadians about their past and a desire to provide good entertainment, the filmmakers appear to have been unable to make up their minds, and thus fell flat with their final product. Mind you, I don't know that I could have done a much better job myself with the source material. I don't really understand what led to a decision to end this film with the start of the more interesting story about how the Confederation deal was brokered. When I lecture on this material to my undergraduates, I take less time to address the issue of the deadlocked legislative assembly of the 1850s and 1860s than this film did. It might well have been better to simply admit that some aspects of Canada's political past are not the best source material for a movie. But that's another debate...

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At 11:37 am, Anonymous Eamon said...

I didn't even know there was a TV movie about John A coming out... I might have watched it...

I guess I don't watch enough CBC...

At 1:50 pm, Blogger Brian said...

I have to agree with you-- I too found the dialogue stilted--it did sound like they were reading from a history text book.

I think such is the difficulty with historical dramas. There is a lot the audience needs to know and thus the dialogue does not sound believable--at all!!

Any rate, I did find the show compelling and interesting due to the film techniques they used to keep the viewer engaged--ie: tight close ups on the actors and music--underneath to tell you "how you were supposed to feel" Corny--but it worked.

I come from an acting background and the acting, I found to be very solid. Doyle is a STAR and he shows his chops here.

Perhaps, as you indicate, there will be a sequel to this movie--telling us all about how the Confederation deal was brokered.

Thank you for writing!!

Merci Mon Ami

At 4:11 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I loved this show, made me proud to be Canadian, and I never realized just how much compromise was made by men who were so opinionated and hated each other so much or the threat from the States during their civil war

At 2:31 pm, Anonymous Eamon said...

This kind of thing makes you realize exactly how pathetic the no-compromise politics playing out in Canada and the US are...

@Brian - Amistad wasn't textbooky, and I found Band of Brothers to be an amazing show - using creative means to build the narrative can make a historical drama/epic more tolerable.

Though I haven't seen this movie, it sounds as though they didn't do a particularly wonderful job with the story or the dialogue, which is a real failure when you compare it to successful historical films/shows. I didn't know anything about the Amistad, or the 101st Airborne before watching the aforementioned films, but they made it easy for me to move into the story without stilted dialogue.

Movies nowadays have a huge advantage... you don't need to present every single detail - you just need to make the production compelling enough that people go read up on the subject themselves (on accessible resources like Wikipedia, or some other website).

At 12:47 am, Blogger Alex said...

I would much rather have a stilted script that is accurate than the birth of new founding myths in the name of "drama." Historical integrity is more important than the dramatic aspect because, let's face it, these types of films are how most Canadians are going to access their history.


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